My admission of having "left the Church of Christ" may come as a complete surprise to many who have known me through the years; to others who have followed my writings on the institutional church, it will not come as a shock. The decision to cast off the shackles of traditions and laws of men came after many years of prayerful study of the sacred scriptures and the history of the development of the first man-made religious entity – the Catholic Church.
Betty, my faithful and loving wife of over 44 years, has been by my side all the while, studying, praying, and affording me a sounding board where I could test newly discovered hypotheses. She has often served as a good balance to my occasional impetuosity. Today, we stand in complete agreement on what I shall set forth in this article. When I state the reasons why I left the Church of Christ, I really am speaking for Betty also.
It is with great emotional difficulty that one declares he left something behind that was once very near and dear to his heart. Especially, when it involves long-time friends and loved ones. No doubt the apostle Paul shed many a tear as he contemplated the meaning of his decision to leave Judaism in order to embrace the liberating Christ:
Brothers, I pray to God that the Jewish people will be saved; that is my heart's desire. I tell you the truth, they have much enthusiasm for God, but they don’t understand! They ignored God's righteousness and tried to establish their own type of righteousness. They did not put themselves under God's kind of righteousness (S.E.B. Rom. 10:1-4).
This is the second time I have had to make this kind of heart-rending determination. I was born to Roman Catholic parents and was raised a Catholic. I was "baptized" as a baby, attended catechism (religious instructions), and was "confirmed" at the age of twelve. Later, Betty submitted to catechism to become a Catholic that we might marry. We remained Catholics until I was 24 years old. By this time we were introduced to the teachings of the Church of Christ. I remember that much of the discussion centered around identifying "The One True Church." As a Catholic, I was conditioned to the "one true church" concept and had no difficulty accepting it. Also, I could see that Jesus and the apostles taught "immersion" as being necessary for the remission of sins. After much study and deliberation we left the Catholic Church and became "members of the Church of Christ."
Four years after our conversion in Wheeling, West Virginia, I gave up a promising career as a country music entertainer and moved to Temple Terrace (Tampa), Florida where I enrolled as a student in Florida Christian College (later changed to Florida College). I wanted to study the Bible in an intense program, and to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I preached for various congregations over the next 30 years. During this time, I arrived at scriptural conclusions that were considered erroneous and dangerous by some of the clergy (preachers and elders) of this sect. We were branded as "unsound in the faith." Those preachers, elders, and churches which were under the influence of Florida College were warned "to have nothing to do with Dusty Owens." Interestingly, I have been invited to entertain (sing) at lectureships, homecomings, etc. many times, but never once asked to present a Bible lesson. I have often been solicited to make a financial contribution to the school, but never asked to contribute to their spiritual well-being.
I did not intend for this article to be a biography, but I felt that the reader ought to know these pertinent points. Please keep in mind that as I discuss why I left the Church of Christ, I hold no animosity or ill-will toward any person. God's child is my brother or sister in Christ. I will state up front that I do hate the system men devised that robs God's people of their rich inheritance, including the blessings of joy, peace, hope and love. And now, why I left the Church of Christ.
When members of the Church of Christ claim they are "the one true church," they mean that emphatically. They profess to be the only, therefore the true church, that Jesus will save. They go on to identify it by name, "Church of Christ," and insist that one must be a member of this "Church" in order to be saved. Furthermore, they contend that one must be "a faithful member of the church" to be saved. "Faithful" includes attending every announced assembly ("worship service and Bible study"), and giving to the church liberally of your financial earnings and your time. It also includes doing everything according to "truth," which, of course, is determined by the preachers and elders. If your study of the scriptures does not produce the same conclusions that they have reached, you are in "error," judged "unfaithful," and subject to "marking" and even "disfellowshipping."
Gradually, as I studied the scriptures and the original language of the New Testament (Greek), I could see the errors of these contentions. Basically, there is one error - a faulty premise. When you assume the existence of a "church," everything about the church seems to fall into place.
The truth of the matter is, the concept of "church" originated with man and not with God, and over the centuries man has institutionalized his creation. In other words, in the mind of the theologian, the "church" became an "it" separate from the people themselves. This idea permeates the thinking of those in the Church of Christ.
Actually, the English word "church" does not translate the Greek word ecclesia, and does not belong in any English translation of the Bible. The word ecclesia is used throughout the New Testament, but nearly always has reference to God's people who were "called out of darkness." In that context, the ecclesia is the spiritual body of Christ. Men have perverted this concept into a literal organized, functional, entity, which they call "the church." They have differentiated it into "local" and "universal." Furthermore, they think they see Divine instructions in the scriptures for the "local church," which they insist must be followed to the "letter" or run the risk of being condemned by God. They proclaim that all who do not participate in the "five acts of worship" in the assembly are going to hell and that includes giving enough of your earnings to please God. Attendance and financial support are absolutely necessary to salvation - and, to the guaranteed existence of the Church of Christ.
All of these theories perish under a single blow of truth: God never established a literal organization, a functional entity, called "the church"! Jesus never died to save "the church." Jesus died that "whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (Jn. 3:16). Jesus died to save individuals, not a "church"! In apostolic times, when a person gave in to the persuasion of the gospel, he/she was considered "saved." Christians were never instructed to form, organize, or in any way create a corporate body to function as a "local church." When a person became a Christian, he/she had a direct relationship to God through His Son Jesus Christ. Men have obscured that relationship by imposing the necessity of "church membership" for salvation. When I fully realized this, I was closer to leaving this man-made organization called, "The Church of Christ."
Members of the Church of Christ insist that their church is not a denomination. They readily admit that the Lord's people were described by various terms, such as, Christians, saints, firstborn ones, etc., but they cling to one designation - Church of Christ. They maintain that it would be scriptural to use all of the above designations, but in practice they utilize only one. Look for the sign over the door or in front of the building and you will find their name; advertisements in the paper or in the phone book carry their name; many congregations send out advertising brochures which carry their name; and many use letterheads and envelopes that bear their name - Church of Christ. This is to distinguish them from the Church of God, the Baptist Church the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, the Catholic Church, etc. It began to bother me that it was inconsistent and hypocritical to contend that the Church of Christ was not a denomination, when in fact it was - like all the rest.
The first requirement of a denomination is to have a specified name. "It is (1) the act of naming; (2) a name; (3) the name of a class of things; (4) a class or kind ... having a specific name...; (5) a religious sect: as a Protestant denomination." These definitions are from Webster's New World Dictionary. Certainly, on this point, the Church of Christ qualifies as a denomination. Just declaring yourselves "not one" is not sufficient to escape the logical conclusion.
Furthermore, everything that characterizes the denominations of the world (those claiming to follow Christ), are found in the Church of Christ: Corporate body, organization, membership, Church buildings, clergy, worship-services, etc. In fact, I challenge you to name one thing that qualifies a group to be a denomination that is not found in the Church of Christ. You can't name one! The Church of Christ is a denomination.
In fact, the Church of Christ is a sect as well. Members of a sect, by definition, are narrow-minded and bigoted (Webster’s New World Dictionary). Many of the members of the Church of Christ are narrow-minded and bigoted, thinking that only those of their particular brand of Church of Christ-ism will be saved. There are over twenty different sects among those wearing the Church of Christ name and claiming to be the "one true Church." They usually do not fellowship each other. Often, they will not call on a person from another Church of Christ to lead in prayer, lead the congregational singing, or take part in the "services" in some other way. Some preachers will go so far as to insist that a person desiring membership be re-baptized if they come from another type of Church of Christ. I suppose if a group starts their own church, they can establish their own rules and regulations to govern it.
Another reason why I left the Church of Christ was because of the doctrine of authoritative Elders. Through the years, I witnessed men who were elected to the position of leadership become carried away with what they considered to be "divine authority." Supposedly, God has invested authority in each "eldership" of each congregation "to rule in the place of Christ." Much of the blame for this false teaching must lie at the feet of preachers. They use Hebrews 13:17 to mold the "elder-ship" into a ruling class that often demands unconditional obedience. "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit to them for they watch in behalf of your souls..." A careful student of the scriptures, doing a word study of this verse, will discover that the writer was not requiring submissive obedience to a "delegated power from on high," but was encouraging the younger to trust the counsel of the older, wiser, "shepherds of the flock." As Peter would admonish, "Tend the flock of God ... NEITHER AS LORDING IT OVER THE CHARGE allotted to you, but making yourselves ensamples to the flock (1 Pet. 5:2-3).
Obviously, God never intended any man, or group of men, to hold a position "OVER" others, and to exercise special authority by which to "RULE" them. Elders were to SERVE and TEACH others, being EXAMPLES of sonship to God. You can do all this without a dispensation of "divine authority."
According to Jesus, not even the apostles would "exercise authority" over the people of God. "Ye know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. NOT SO SHALL IT BE AMONG YOU" (Matt. 20:25-26). This is very significant. If Jesus emphatically withheld "divine authority" from the apostles, surely, He did not delegate it to elders.
Some men are obsessed with the desire for power. They want to control every detail of the group's activities, as well as tell each individual where and when they can "go to church"; how they should dress for the assembly; and what they can do in their work and play. On the other hand, I have seen men put into positions of leadership who were in no way qualified to be there. Some have functioned as mere finance committees.
Also, I have witnessed a one-man rule in congregations where the preacher made all the decisions. Many congregations rely on the preacher to do everything, "because, after all, he is getting paid to do the work." There are preachers who love the lime-light and allow brethren to hold them up on a pedestal. They call all the shots; do most of the teaching and preaching, hold debates, visit the sick, convert the sinner: and everyone insists "we do not have a clergy system." Does this sound inconsistent to you?
Churches of Christ believe in the autonomy or independence of "each local congregation." That is, until it serves a purpose to practice otherwise. There are times when a preacher or elder from one "local church" will call a preacher or elder of another to advise him that it would be wise to cancel a gospel meeting with a suspected "heretic." Often the gossip and slander (no evidence) is enough to accomplish the result that will "black-ball the heretic." If the leaders of the congregation refuse to cancel the meeting, they know that they become suspect with the "brotherhood." The pressure is there to accommodate the further discrediting of the person who is not willing to spout the party line. Is this not an intrusion into the "autonomy" of a congregation?
Another reason for leaving the Church of Christ is that we witnessed a developing "spirit of division," which, in my opinion, is of the devil. Jesus prayed for unity among His people, which has to be God's will also. In order to thwart God's purpose, Satan works overtime to influence strife and division among the saints. This evil spirit was working in apostolic times:
Now I beseech you, brethren, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be NO DIVISIONS among you: but that ye be perfected together in the same mind and in the same judgment (1 Cor. 1:10).
... for ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you JEALOUSY and STRIFE, are ye not carnal, and do ye not walk after the manner of men? (3:3).
Notice, that the apostle Paul attributed the divisive spirit of the Corinthians to carnality. Carnality is the opposite of spirituality. It is worldly, and therefore, Satanic. It is ungodly and unrighteous, therefore, sinful!
Paul listed "strife" and "division" with "fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, ... jealousies, wraths, factions,… parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like," stating emphatically, "that they who practice such things SHALL NOT INHERIT THE KINGDOM OF GOD" (Gal. 5: 19-21). Is promoting "strife and division" a serious offense to God? I believe it is. Since my attempts to reform members of the Church of Christ and get them to see the seriousness of this sin, not only fell on deaf ears, but kept me in constant turmoil, I had to leave the Church of Christ. I could no longer be a party to the "strife and division" that they seem to thrive on.
Much of their fighting, wrangling, strife and division come from (1) a self-imposed responsibility to "defend the truth"; and (2) misinterpretation of 2 John 9-11.
Every child of God should be ready to "defend the truth" as far as he understands it. But, what does this mean? Peter supplies the answer: "Always be ready to give an answer of defense to anyone who asks you why you have hope inside you" (1 Pet. 3:15, S.E.B.). When I give an answer to a person who questions my faith and/or practice, it is limited to my own knowledge and understanding of God's will. I should not be so presumptuous as to think that I can always give an answer that will be according to God's truth. If I could, I would be infallible!
Many of the clergy of the Church of Christ go beyond Peter's admonition to "defend the truth," to a position of defending "the doctrine of Christ" as their brand of Church of Christ-ism teaches. Hence, they have the self-imposed responsibility to keep the doctrine OF THE CHURCH pure. "Defending the truth" is really "defending the teachings of the church." Since "the church" was not an idea of God, but an institution of man, God does not require anyone to offer defense for this institution.
When the clergy insists on everyone conforming to their church doctrine, there are bound to be differences of opinion. When this happens, debates and argumentation ensue. If attitudes are not right, if the contestants are carnal, fighting, wrangling, strife and division follow, and Satan wins out over God's people. I have witnessed this happening often just in the Tampa Bay area over the last several years. Many of the congregations here today, owe their existence to the result of strife and division. In my opinion, God is not pleased.
Another contributing factor for the divisions that are rampant among the Churches of Christ, especially the radical right of each of the parties, is the misinterpretation of 2 John 9-11.
Whosoever goeth onward and abideth not in the teaching of Christ, hath not God: he that abideth in the teaching, the same hath both the Father and the Son. If anyone cometh unto you, and bringeth not this teaching, receive him not into your house, and give him no greeting: for he that giveth him greeting partaketh in his evil works.
The interpretation placed upon this passage is that the "teaching of Christ" is generic, meaning it applies to everything Jesus taught. In other words, "teaching of Christ" equals "truth." With this prefabricated "yard-stick" one can measure any "teaching" to see if it conforms with "the teaching of Christ." If it does, he has "both the Father and the Son"; if it does not, that person does not have God. Furthermore, if he comes to your house, you cannot admit him, nor give him greeting. If you do, you come under God's condemnation.
Armed with this interpretation, the leaders of the church, BY THEIR OWN STANDARD, can measure the "soundness" of each individual. What they believe the truth to be on any subject becomes the STANDARD.
For example: Hebrews 10:25 teaches we are not to forsake our own assembling together. Since this was taught by an inspired writer, it must be a "teaching of Christ"; if you disagree, you are not "abiding in the teaching of Christ"; therefore, you do not have God, and I cannot fellowship you. This is only one of many examples I could cite to show how easy it is to cause strife and division. 2 John 9-11 has been invoked on many occasions in the Church of Christ to cause this sinful condition.
What is the meaning of 2 John 9-11? The answer is in the context, which is ironic, for members of the Church of Christ say they insist on leaving passages of scripture in context. The "teaching OF Christ" concerns His deity. Jesus taught that He was God come in the flesh. The apostles believed that (John 1:1,14). Later, a group claiming to be Christians refused to accept the idea that deity could take on sinful flesh. They rejected "the teaching of Christ" on this point. In John's second epistle, he states, "For many deceivers are gone forth in the world, even they that CONFESS NOT THAT JESUS CHRIST COMETH IN THE FI.ESH. This is the deceiver and the antichrist" (v.7) This is the context by which we understand the point John is making in verses 8 through 11. There, the apostle warns of the dangers and consequences of rejecting the teaching of our Lord (i.e., that He was both man and God) in favor of the deceptive doctrine of the "antichrist." Using this passage to club people into submission to a church doctrine is inexcusable. It promotes strife and division which are serious enough to keep one from inheriting the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:21).
As the truth about these things became apparent to me, I became more cognizant of the ways that many of the clergy were misusing this passage to win their arguments with each other, and to force conformity upon the masses. It made me sick at heart. Gradually, I reached a point where I no longer considered them honest and forthright.
If you study the development of Catholicism, you must be impressed with the gradual development of ceremony and ritualism. As a catholic for many years, it was common practice to "attend church" and follow the priest as he "said mass." They call it, "WORSHIP"! The format was almost always the same: a combination of songs, scripture readings, prayers, and preaching. There was a mass for each Sunday printed in your missal to aid you in following the priest. The priest, a full-time professional, was center-stage and obviously the central character in each performance. And, that was really what drew the people to any one congregation. If a priest was personable and exceptionally articulate as he went through the liturgy, the people responded with faithful attendance every Sunday. If a priest was introverted and dull, the people slowly drifted off to join another congregation where the priest was a more exciting performer. Churches competed by making sure that they had a top-notch achiever. Success for the priests was measured by the ability to draw great numbers and by the amount of the offerings that could be solicited from the audience.
It was some time before the ceremony and ritualism in the Church of Christ began to register on me. Maybe it was because I was caught up in the responsibility I felt to "be prepared" each week with two sermons and a Bible class lesson. Maybe it was because we like the comfort zone of our own little rut (do you notice how people tend to sit in their "own" pew every assembly?), and we fight change. Depending on what part of the country you are from, every Sunday's ritual included "the five acts of worship": announcements, two songs, a prayer, a song, another song to "prepare our minds," the Lord's Supper, the collection, the sermon, an invitation song, closing remarks, closing song, and a closing prayer. Finally, it dawned on me - this is ceremony and ritualism. This is another form of what we had in the Catholic Church.
Does it have to be like this? I think that one reason we succumb to ceremony and ritualism is because of the insistence to own and meet in a "church-building." Look at how we arrange the auditorium. We put nearly all the seats in theater style, facing the front (stage?). In a lot of places, there is a spotlight fixed at the location of the preacher or master of ceremonies. This tends to focus all attention on the one who is "performing." The seating arrangement discourages any interaction between the members. In fact, even whispering may illicit a resounding rebuke. After dismissal, a person does get the idea that he/she has "attended a service," instead of "participating" and "serving."
In my opinion, it is significant that in apostolic times, the disciples met in their houses, probably in several, small groups. Jesus promised that even where two or three come together, He will be in their midst. The practice of building a special place for the group did not become the norm until the early Fourth Century. In these smaller, more intimate gatherings, there was no call for formalism, ceremony, or ritualism. The saints came together to visit and to encourage each other in the faith. Sometimes, someone would have a spiritual song or psalm to share, someone else prayed. They often came together to eat the common meal and at times they included the Lord's Supper. There was no set pattern. God has not revealed one. Coming together in this fashion allowed them to really know each other and to discover ways they could minister to each other.
Meeting this way in houses carried other advantages. There were no collections of money for payments on properties, maintenance, and utilities. There were no squabbles over who owned or controlled the building. There were no signs to put up, therefore, no need to "name the group." There was no need for a "church treasury," something completely foreign to the New Testament scriptures. The early Christians were admonished to put money aside AT HOME, in case an opportunity to exercise benevolence came along (1 Cor. 16:1-3). Arguments today over whether women can speak out in the assembly dissipate when the group meets in a private house. There women readily participate and no one objects.
God intended for His children to be free in Christ Jesus. Jesus said, "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). We learn the extent of this freedom by studying His word (8:31). Paul said, "For freedom did Christ set us free: stand fast therefore, and be not entangled again in a yoke of bondage" (Gal. 5:1). "For ye, brethren, were called for freedom; only use not your freedom for an occasion to the flesh, but through love be servants one to another" (5:13).
One aspect of religion is that it holds people in bondage. God has no religion. Christ did not die for a religion. The apostles did not establish a religion. You can read about the Jew’s religion (Gal. 1:13,14), and the religion of the pagans (Acts 22:17), but you will not read about the religion of Christ. The Jew’s religion held people in bondage through the law of Moses and the traditions of men. Pagans served many gods through a temple system maintained by a priesthood. It kept them in bondage. Any Jew or Gentile who renounced all, turned from sin, and placed his faith in Jesus Christ was liberated.
Writing to the Galatians, Paul expressed surprise and shock that Christians gave up the "grace of Christ" to return "to the weak and beggarly rudiments… to be in bondage over again" (Gal. 1:6; 4:9). What were they doing to bring on these critical comments by the apostle? They were allowing religious leaders to dictate rules and regulations that they said had to be obeyed for salvation. They were told that they had to be circumcised, keep certain days holy, make various sacrifices to God. Paul said that if they gave in to these requirements, they would lose their blessings. "Christ will profit you nothing" (5:2).
The denominations of the world, including the Church of Christ, are man-made institutions. They abound with church laws and regulations, which, if broken, may lead to excommunication, or members being reduced to second-class citizenship. Under these laws, members are returned to bondage. Here are some of the laws imposed by the Church of Christ WHICH GOD DID NOT LEGISLATE: You must assemble with the saints twice on Sunday and on Wednesday night; you must observe the Lord's Supper every Sunday (some say only in the morning); you must sing, but not be accompanied with an instrument; you must give of your earnings to the church treasury every Sunday; only men in proper fellowship may be called upon to pray; proper attire is required of those who "wait on the Lord's table"; women are not allowed to teach adults or preach to the congregation but must remain silent during the assembly; they are expected to sing; no mixed bathing or swimming; no gambling of any kind; consumption of any alcoholic beverage is prohibited; all smoking or chewing is prohibited; no fishing, hunting, or playing sports on Sunday; and the list goes on, but this will suffice to make the point.
Is it any wonder that many of the members of the church are unhappy and frustrated? They are not enjoying their life as a Christian. You can tell it when you visit with them. You can see it in their eyes. The spark of life is gone. Their attitude betrays them. In the sermon on the mountain, Jesus told us what it would take to be blessed (happy). We need to go back to the mountain. We will not find the institutional church there. Paul tells us to rejoice always under any and all circumstances, but it's difficult when you labor under great bondage and wonder if you are obeying all the requirements that men have laid upon you ... and, if you are saved! The answer my friend is not "church"; it is freedom in Christ Jesus!
There are many other reasons why I left the Church of Christ that have not been covered in this treatise, but these are some of the principal ones. I suspect that I have infuriated some who have taken the trouble to read this article thoroughly. I did not mean to antagonize. Hopefully, some of you will gain knowledge and understanding of what it means to be a slave to a system devised by men. May you find the courage to do what God would have you do, because doing it will bring you the peace, love and joy that Jesus died to provide.
What I have said critically about the Church of Christ could be said of any denomination, because the problems discussed are the logical consequences of any institutional church. There is always the temptation to take something simple and plain, and add to it, embellish and modernize it; change it! Also, there is always the quest for power and notoriety, competition for the spotlight, the clash of the super-egos. I witnessed it all in my years with the Church of Christ.
In the early years of our experience, many members of the Church seemed different than those of today. Then, I was impressed with their quest for truth, their open-mindedness, humility, love and concern for others, and their tolerance towards those who did not believe the way they did. I saw the change in that attitude through later years as many seemed to become paranoid with fear, frustration and suspicion. Bitterness and sadness filled the pews. Frank, open discussion on any Bible subject became a thing of the past as there gradually developed a form of catechism; where the teacher asks the same simple, basic questions of the class that he has asked for years (of the same people); where probing and meaningful, though perhaps controversial, questions were no longer encouraged and tolerated, and sometimes even forbidden for fear that it might result in a heated argument. Through the years, I witnessed the emergence of a church doctrine that had to be protected at all cost. I watched members of the Church of Christ develop an attitude that it is better not to speak out on things they disagreed with lest they be "put out of the synagogue." And so, they still sit in their pews, silent as a tombstone, putting in their time, not rocking the boat, protecting their status and reputation as "faithful members of the church."
So are the fruits of institutional church-ism. Its members are the product of the professional preacher and the authoritative eldership. They have taken what God gave through His Son, a simple, direct, unencumbered relationship with Him, and they have fashioned unto themselves their idol, their golden calf: The Church of Christ. Is there any hope for the people? Yes – but will they repent? What must they do?
The answer is similar to Jesus’ response to the rich man. "Give it all away and come, follow me." Lay down your banner, "Church of Christ," which is part of the sin of division, and be content to be known simply as a Christian. Put away your idolatry.
And what agreement hath a temple of God with idols? for we are a temple of the living God: even as God said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them: and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore, COME YE OUT FROM AMONG THEM, AND BE YE SEPARATE SAITH THE LORD (2 Cor. 6:16-17).